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A blogger's battle from behind bars

Josh Wolf, the first blogger jailed for refusing to cooperate with a federal grand jury, says he's trying to prevent the eroding of journalists' protections.

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
6 min read
Josh Wolf, a 24-year-old freelance journalist, made headlines last week as the first known blogger to be thrown into federal prison for not cooperating with judiciary officials.

One of the Internet's earliest video bloggers, Wolf refused to testify before a U.S. grand jury and also refused to hand over unpublished video footage he shot during a clash between San Francisco police and anti-G8 protesters in July 2005.

Wolf might normally be protected by California's shield law. But federal prosecutors, who want to see if Wolf's footage shows a San Francisco police car being set on fire at the protest, say they have jurisdiction over the case because the car was paid for in part by federal dollars. (Click here for video. Note: Contains some profanity.)

And in an ironic twist, the very members of the corporate-controlled mainstream media that Wolf and many fellow new-media members like to criticize, have come to his defense and are contributing to his legal fund. Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in jail last year for refusing to testify in a federal investigation, aired her support for Wolf on Saturday in front of the facility in which he is being held in Dublin, Calif., but was denied an interview with him.

Prison officials allowed CNET News.com to do a 15-minute phone interview with their now famous Netizen inmate, who calls himself a "student of anarchist philosophies." The San Francisco man said his jailing might have something to do with his politics, or at least the politics of the people on the tape. But his greater concern is what he sees as the government's attempt to further erode the protections affording to journalists.

Q: First of all, how are you holding up in there, and what's your situation like? Are you being housed in a protected area or among the hard-core felons?
Wolf: I'm holding up quite all right. I'm very lucky to be in this facility. It seems more akin to what one might expect from a mental ward, except the people aren't crazy. I've established a rapport with most of the inmates there. The food is edible, which is a great relief seeing as I'm someone who's a little finicky about food and you can't be too finicky in jail, if you know what I mean. I'm going to refrain from discussing who's in the population other than to say that everyone has been respectful to me and quite friendly and outgoing. The guards have also been very professional and treat everyone, not only myself, but everyone in the population as human beings which is something I was a little afraid I wouldn't observe but I'm happy to say is the case in this federal facility.

Tell us about your rationale in deciding not to hand over the video tapes. How much of it was about protecting your sources, or activists caught on tape, and how much of it was about First Amendment rights?
Wolf: First and foremost, this issue should be a state issue. The federal grand jury is investigating the alleged attempted damage to a San Francisco police vehicle. That is the subject of the investigation. If an S.F. police vehicle is considered federal property, then what isn't federal property? Your school? Even City Hall itself. I'm not sure that that extension is accurate, but it's not very much of a stretch and that is very disturbing.

This is an attempt of the federal government circumventing the state protections for who knows what purpose.

Beyond that, I should be protected in the state system by the California shield law. The state of California, the local jurisdiction, has made no attempts to try to get this footage. This is an attempt of the federal government circumventing the state protections for who knows what purpose. Something tells me that it's about more than damage to a San Francisco police vehicle. And it's a scary position when you have the government acting in such a coercive, secretive manner. The fact that I am a journalist and should be protected is a very big part of it. When I went in and began documenting this movement, I gave my word to numerous people that I would only publish what my discretion allowed and beyond that would not turn over additional material. So they are sources in a different sort of way than the Judith Miller case, but there still is an element of protecting sources and also protecting people's right to privacy and freedoms of association.

Do you feel the federal government is making an example of you because of your political beliefs?
Wolf: I don't feel that that is the case so much, but I do feel it's an attempt of the government to further erode the protections affording to journalists. I do feel it may be a political attempt to catalogue and chronicle who in the San Francisco Bay Area identifies as anarchist, not particularly myself, but the people on the tape. I'm sure you're aware of the 1950s HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) McCarthyism. Today's communist is the anarchist. I'm very much concerned that this is a political witch hunt, although I feel it's less about me than about people out in the community.

Do you feel that all bloggers should be protected as independent journalists under California's shield law? If not, how do you decide which ones are protected?
Wolf: I feel that people should be protected when engaging upon journalistic activities. This was a video that was published and is clearly an example of video journalism. Therefore, it should be protected as an example of journalism and I should be protected, in this situation, as a journalist. If you're wanting to take a more restrictive approach, and think that people need requirements for journalism, I have an extensive history of journalism going back to publishing for the Santa Barbara Independent several years ago.

So it's less about someone's label as a blogger and more about their information-gathering methodology?
Wolf: Right, I think it was Jeff Jarvis who wondered if Tony Soprano started a blog, could he then not be compelled to testify about his associates. If he started a blog and was interviewing various people in his organization, then maybe that would be journalism, but we're already dealing with a fictional HBO show, so it's a bit of a cartoon analogy to begin with.

After all the dissatisfaction you've expressed with mainstream media, do you see some irony with the likes of the Society of Professional Journalists and the San Francisco Chronicle coming to your defense?
Wolf: To be honest, my critiques and concerns about mainstream media is mostly focused on television media with a special focus on cable news such as Fox affiliates and their position that they are "fair and balanced." I feel that the idea of being objective is something that's an impossible goal. And to that extent, I feel that trying to present yourself as objective is very deceitful. It's a little easier in the case of newspapers, which have a much stronger history of reporting all the facts. Even still there is an element of sensationalizing issues to the bias of the corporation. That is my critique of corporate media. It's not the journalists themselves, but the means that the corporation shapes what is and isn't published.

If Bill O'Reilly comes and makes a statement on my behalf, then it will be ironic.

Well on that note, Judith Miller did. How did that make you feel?
Wolf: I'm very thankful that I have an ally on the outside who has been through the same thing and can help publicize the situation that she found herself in, and I'm now finding myself in.

How long to you plan to hold out?
Wolf: At this point in time I'm waiting for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals first to rule whether or not I should be granted bail, then, to rule whether or not my appeal is granted. After that, I will continue to assess the situation as it progresses.

What do you think will be the legacy of your case?
I hope that the legacy of my case is that the protections afforded to journalists will increase, rather than to erode. I hope that people become more aware of the way the federal governments acts in these situations. And probably most importantly, I hope that people become aware of the federal grand jury system, which is a system that I feel should be unconstitutional. When you appear in front of a federal grand jury, you are not granted a lawyer. There is no judge. It's just you, the prosecutor and 12 jurors, which seems like a very, very unfair system, which beyond that, is secretive. It's almost akin to the military tribunals which have already generated so much controversy, except for instead of being enemy combatants, these are our very own citizens who are put in this position.